By LEAH STRATMANN
Linda Young, director of the Clean Water Network of Florida (CWN-FL) is convinced the construction of the new airport in Panama City has become an ecological disaster and the entire matter is largely being ignored by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP). Of late, her organization has been calling for an investigation by the federal Environmental Protection Agency.
In a press release, Young writes, “Four-thousand acres of deep swampland, donated by the St. Joe Development Company for the construction of an international airport, is situated at the bottom of an 80,000 acre bowl and was, pre-construction, remarkable for hundreds of acres of deep cypress swamps, high ground-water, abundant wetlands, and crystal clear streams which slowly fed two sandy-bottomed creeks that eventually opened into West Bay. To date, 5.7 million cubic yards of fill have been placed over these wetlands and streams. In addition, a crosswind runway will require approximately one million cubic yards of fill dirt.”
Randy Curtis, executive director of the Bay County Airport Authority (BCAA) confirms the numbers in terms of fill-dirt and writes in an e-mail, “Approximately 5 million cubic yards of material has been placed to date on the phase 1 construction area. This includes both upland and wetland areas. All fill material has been obtained from onsite sources within the phase 1 area. The crosswind runway will require approximately 800,000 to 900,000 cubic yards.”
Young says, “Since the land clearing began in January 2008, rain events, large and small, have created a deluge of mud and standing water to leave the airport site. The 80,000 acres above the airport still releases a tremendous amount of water through the airport site, but instead of being absorbed by thousands of acres of wetlands, the water now finds an impervious runway and an inadequate storm water treatment system. The 7,200 linear feet of slow-moving winding streams are now paved over and the groundwater no longer flows evenly through the cleansing soils. The water rushes over the newly filled and graded land and carries tons of mud to Crooked Creek and Burnt Mill Creek which, as expected, are discharging rivers of mud into the highly productive fish-nursery marshes of West Bay.”
Pilots assisting the Clean Water Network of Florida have taken numerous photographs over the past 15 months, of the muddy flow of water into West Bay. Further, Young said a pilot reported seeing very large drainage pipes being buried beneath an unpaved, newly cut, access road running from the airport toward Crooked Creek. The pilot questioned if the purpose for that pipe could be site drainage into Crooked Creek, or perhaps all the way south directly into the West Bay. At a meeting with DEP last week, Young questioned them about the pipes reported from aerial surveillance. Young said DEP says they asked the BCAA about these pipes and were told there were no pipes discharging to the creeks.
Young says a report to the DEP from KBR Construction last week confirms the installation of an 18-inch drainpipe on April 28 through the dike at Kelly Branch, which flows into Crooked Creek. The construction firm says the pipe will be removed when the area is stabilized sometime in the future. However, Young alleges any discharge to surface water is prohibited by the general permit that the BCAA is utilizing, and no permit for a discharge has been granted for the pipe of which Young is aware.
“The destruction of Crooked and Burnt Mill Creeks and West Bay has been happening for many months now and finally after several documented violations and many requests to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection for appropriate enforcement action, apparently some enforcement is being initiated,” Young said. CWN-FL is the organization that led the fight to stop the destruction of West Bay with an unneeded airport. “We have also alerted the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and sent the photos that document the violations. We are in a wait-and-see mode. This situation demands more than a slap on the wrist. It requires a re-thinking of the entire airport/West Bay development scheme,” Young said.
The airport construction was opposed by the voters of Bay County, as well as numerous other groups according to Young. “Experts for the groups warned DEP officials, the public and the courts, of the dangers of destroying the vast wetlands that capture the voluminous amounts of groundwater and rainfall, and then slowly release the water into West Bay, which was known as an abundant fishery and one of the six most diverse estuaries in all of North America. The only environmental group that supported the destruction was Florida Audubon, who received donations in cash and land from the St. Joe Company,” Young asserted.
“Protecting West Bay from after effects of bad development in its watershed, such as this airport, has been a long battle with our local officials, in the courts, and with environmental agencies that are charged with protecting our resources,” says Diane Brown, member of Citizens for the Bay. “We are now seeing the results of their failure to enforce local, state and federal laws that would have prevented this airport from being built in this environmentally sensitive location. It has been a predictable disaster waiting to happen,” Brown said.
CWN-FL says the permit issued by the Corps of Engineers commits the Airport Authority to protect the natural resources. When asked how they respond to allegations that the muddy flow currently underway does not constitute protection, BCAA responded with the following statement:
“The Airport Authority and its managing board continues to be fully committed to the protection of the area’s natural resources. Significant funding and resources have been expended to this end. That the Panhandle region was designated a disaster area by the state and federal governments after this storm event is not considered an acceptable excuse for the turbidity issues resulting from the storm. The Airport Authority is moving forward in a proactive manner to identify root causes for the permit violations and is demanding that every element of the program team apply lessons learned to ensure that these problems are not only avoided during the coming construction season, but that they are also addressed in a manner so that solutions are provided to ensure long term maintenance and operational viability in full accordance with all permit requirements.” Curtis stated.
At a recent meeting, the Bay County Airport Authority discussed how they could get $400,000 to construct two large canals from the site to nearby creeks to keep the site drained. FAA rules do not allow standing water near airports because the water attracts wildlife, especially birds, which are a hazard to planes. When questioned about canals putting aviation fuel and other harmful ingredients into the nearby waterways, Curtis said, “The drainage design provides separate storm water systems for interior and exterior drainage areas. The final design has accounted for full treatment of all interior waters to a level consistent with that required for release into outstanding Florida waters. The Airport Authority has requested permission to perform selective offsite maintenance of existing drainage channels on the airport property in accordance with standard silviculture operations and in accordance with Northwest Florida Water Management District regulations. This maintenance will resolve the offsite flooding issues encountered during the last storm event. It is not the Airport Authority’s intent to construct any ‘canals’ in that the final design is considered sufficient for all required treatment and storm water attenuation.”
BCAA and St. Joe have announced plans to fill thousands of more acres around the airport for commercial and residential development. The company essentially owns the entire watershed for West Bay and needed the airport as a means to get publicly-funded infrastructure into the watershed, which is very wet and had few paved roads and no water, sewer, power or other infrastructure, Young said. The $350 million dollars needed to construct the airport has come primarily from taxpayer money funneled through the Florida Department of Transportation (DOT), the federal Department of Transportation and the Florida Legislature, according to Young.
Young says every inch of pavement for housing will only exacerbate the problem, claiming not only will residents have flooding, but the surrounding creeks will be further destroyed with additional development.
“Any attempt to secure a permit to construct a direct discharge to the creeks or the bay will be aggressively opposed,” said Young. “Any future filling of wetlands in the West Bay watershed should be disallowed by state and federal agencies and the Airport Authority should be required to take immediate action to stop the destruction of this important estuary – including removal of the runway if necessary. This was a failed project from its conception,” Young added.
Calls by The Herald to DEP in Pensacola were not returned. A meeting between Young and the DEP was held May 8 to address many of the ongoing concerns of her organization and more information on the airport construction and environmental damage will be forthcoming.
Leah Stratmann can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.